There’s a part in Spiral, the new attempt to resuscitate the Saw franchise, where Samuel L. Jackson’s tough guy police captain bellows out something to the killer like “You wanna play games mothafucka, alright, I’ll play!” I was immediately reminded of the part in Scary Movie 4 that parodies Saw with Shaquille O’Neill and Dr. Phil trapped in one of Jigsaw’s dungeons, played for utmost comedic effect. Now, if I make that kind of association to a Saw film that’s supposed to be taken seriously it’s really not a good sign and is a dead indicator of just how inexcusably, punishingly bad this film is, a true spiral of the downward variety. If you’re going to take property like Saw, which has an incredibly detailed and specific lineage and one of the most die-hard franchise fandoms out there, if you’re going to rework that and fashion it into something that’s supposed to nostalgic yet fresh, something that must hold the connective tissue to the lore steadfast yet also open up new neural pathways in the mythology you better make sure you’re on your A-game and come up with something special and…. this is what they fucking did? Really? First of all, Chris Rock and Sam Jackson just don’t fit the bill, I’ll say it. As a father son duo of detectives who work in a precinct packed with morally shady cops (them included) they just seem to stand out in the worst way. Rock is alternatively manic and withdrawn, every note he chooses is off-key, while Jackson just seems bored and confused. Everyone else is miscast, from Hungarian-American bombshell Marisol Nichols as their worried lieutenant to MacMurray from freaking Letterkennny as an ill fated cop from their team who looks like he just walked out from a high stakes poker game aboard a Mississippi paddle-wheeler boat. And as for the identity of the killer? It’s fairly obvious who it is in the first ten minutes of the film, which was a massive letdown. Also the thing is just so bizarrely over-lit, like every scene is just weirdly bright, and even the underground or dungeon scenes that should feel murky and shadowy still have this odd fluorescent sheen, it’s like their gaffer was packing every illuminating device from an aircraft carrier in his gear trailer. As far as ties to the John Kramer jigsaw murders go and any respects paid to the franchise overall, it’s just lazy coincidental conjecture and bad, half assed writing. Like, why did this even need to be a Saw related film? Why did they need to shoehorn the trademark vicious booby trap aesthetic into their dumb, overcooked, predictable cop killer whodunit? And furthermore who thought it was a remotely good idea to add a bunch of silly rap songs to the soundtrack and smother any atmosphere they hoped to generate almost as badly as the lighting does? I suppose they knew they needed some kind of brand name to juice up their lifeless script and try to distract viewers from how much they didn’t even try. Pure shit.
Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea is about as loud, silly, gory and hilarious as you’d expect a ‘killer smart shark’ flick to be and is for the most part a lot of fun, even if it sometimes dissolves into eyeball melting pandemonium. The premise is actually a good one: a brilliant and obligatorily sexy scientist (the lovely Saffron Burrows) has developed a potential formula to treat Alzheimer’s using genetic material from shark brains, and she’s gotten a high level executive (Samuel L. Jackson) to convince his CEO boss (a brief, contemplative cameo from Ronny Cox) to sign off on funding, pending an inspection visit to her test facility out in the ocean. There we meet others including shark hunting guru Thomas Jane, gruff scientist Stellan Skarsgard, oddball cook LL Cool J and grunt Michael Rapaport, all who make great cannon fodder for the marauding sharks once they decide they’re too smart to be lab rats for these people anymore. There are some great gory kills here and the timing of them is sometimes genuinely shocking and inspired, including one death scene that is straight out of the book of nihilism and dark humour 101 and had me laughing hard. It’s basically a decent B movie souped up with Hollywood effects, tons of explosions and while it has the misfortune of being released when CGI wasn’t too great (it shows), it also has the advantage of being made at a time when shark horror films weren’t over saturated and done to death like they are these days and as such feels somewhat fresh, especially given its additional premise of sentient sharks. It’s fun, engaging and a bit cacophonous in some instances where it could have employed more stealth and suspense, but overall a good example of the shark sub genre.
The screen is black and the opening credits begin. The first thing we hear is a dirge called Clementine’s Loop, composed by Jon Brion. The mood it pitches is stark and foreboding. The audience is immediately keyed in to the notion that the next 102 minutes will probably not be a reflection of the life-affirming highlights of the characters’ lives.
When the image comes up, we’re outside a Denny’s. Well, a reconverted Denny’s. The world of Hard Eight is one of unshakable reputations; it can say Jack’s Coffee Shop on the sign but it’s still a Denny’s that has been broken down, sold off, and is quietly functioning in its new skin. Walking towards this cafe is Sydney, a shadowy, yet direct man who, seemingly at random, offers to buy a poor stranded soul named John a cup of coffee.
It seems appropriate to note that, once upon a time, Peter Yates directed Robert Mitchum in a film called the Friends of Eddie Coyle which was not too dissimilar from Hard Eight. Set in the less-cinematic parts of Boston, that film chronicled the lives of the lowest-level functionaries in the organized crime business; bottom feeders who would feed on each other if need be. And in that film, everyone spoke with a clarity that ensured that whoever was listening understood what was said and what was not being said.
Hard Eight is very much like this world. In the earlier film, Robert Mitchum got to put the fear of God into a hot shot gunrunner by explaining why you never ask a man why he’s in a hurry. In Hard Eight, Sydney helpfully reminds John never to ignore a man’s courtesy. In both scenes, the veteran looks dog-tired and slow but you never once doubt his wisdom and respect the commanding way he delivers it.
In Hard Eight, Sydney is played by Philip Baker Hall and John is played by John C. Reilly. During the course of the opening scene, we will learn just enough about each character to want to tag along with them; Sydney is a well-dressed, professional gambler and John is a sweetly dim loser who only wants to win enough money in Vegas to pay for his mom’s funeral. Fifteen minutes into the film, we’re hanging on Sydney’s every word and John’s receptiveness to them. By the time sad-eyed cocktail waitress-cum-prostitute Clementine (Gwenyth Paltrow) and reptilian casino security manager Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) are added to the mix, we slowly begin to see the ingredients of disaster come together and, like John, we look to Sydney for his guidance and trust his every movement. For there’s no doubt he’s seen disaster before.
What’s most astonishing about the debut film of Paul Thomas Anderson is how subdued it is, Made by a young man of 26, Anderson refuses to fall into the trap that 99% of nascent filmmakers do which dictates that one must be as flashy as possible by jamming in as many cinematic references and tricks that they can. In his first time out as a filmmaker, Anderson shows a real maturity in his restraint and his ability to approach material correctly and there is an amazing wisdom in the dialogue.
The film’s setting is interesting, too. Like Robert Altman’s California Split, Hard Eight takes place in the unglamorous world of daytime nightlife. Garish hotel rooms, eerily desolate roads, and the sparse, Wednesday afternoon crowd in dumpy Reno casinos are all writ large on cinematographer Robert Elswit’s wide canvas. And John Brion’s Hammond B3-laced score injects the right amount of lounge-lizard sleaze into the atmosphere. The characters and plot, a potent blend of a Jean Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, and an Elmore Leonard novel, mix with its harsh, cinematic world in such a way that you can smell the stale cigarette smoke on every frame of film.
To achieve this, a film has to be extraordinarily observant and meticulous in its details. Take, for instance, a scene in which Clementine, who has to leave town with John in a hurry, gives Sydney instructions for feeding her cats and how to unlock her apartment door with a key ring that is ridiculously overloaded with keys and trinkets. It’s not played for laughs and it doesn’t even call attention to itself. It’s simply a detail that serves as a reminder that Anderson knows characters like Clementine; someone who sadly, and in the name of basic survival, gives so much of herself away that overloading her keychain with goofy charms and ephemera seems like one of the few remaining frontiers of self-expression and individuality.
As well-realized its world and well-written its dialogue, Hard Eight is, above all, an actor’s film. Philip Baker Hall, an actor who before Hard Eight was mostly known as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s film adaptation of Secret Honor, got one of the biggest gifts from the gods with a role for the ages. Stoic and precise, Hall gets the immense actor’s pleasure of both being able to express himself with his stoney face and the right to spit hot-fire lines of dialogue like “You know the first thing they should have taught you you in hooker school? You get the money up front.” It’s a performance of masterful skill, immense control, and sheer perfection. I’ll fight the man, woman, or child that disagrees.
John C. Reilly can never get enough credit and is one of the finest character actors working today. In Hard Eight, he turns in one of his greatest performances as a truly pitiful lug who needs a hug and an emotional anchor. While Hall is tasked with the heavy lifting during the scenes of severe gravity, Reilly gets a few astonishing moments of emotional counterbalance, most especially during a telephone conversation in a key scene in the film’s third act. Also bringing the lumber is Gwenyth Paltrow who summons up the depressing cheapness that runs through her character while also making her vulnerable and human. It helps that her character is the hooker with a heart of despair and loneliness, not gold and half of the time her smeared lipstick makes her look like a clown that escaped a black velvet painting.
Fourth-billed Samuel L. Jackson brings fire to the film as the charismatic yet crudely loathsome security manager who knows everything that goes on in, and out, of the casino. With his wide grin, his maroon leather jacket, and his driving gloves, Jimmy is a study in someone who wouldn’t know class if he fell into it, yet is supremely lethal and projects a menace that, once he’s introduced, hangs like a pall over every remaining second of the film.
Hard Eight was marketed to capitalize on the then-red hot Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino vibe; an explosive, rapid-fire of witty banter, cool Vegas shenanigans, and gritty gangster action. To give the film more of that post-Rat Pack fetish vibe that washed all over indie cinema in the mid to late 90’s, the trailer assigned face-card titles to the characters (Gwenyth Paltrow is the Queen!). That the film had none of the aforementioned elements probably surprised the few that were able to overcome the distributor’s shameful mismanagement and were able to see it. For some, the surprise was likely a let down. Regardless of quality, there was, once upon a time, an audience that ate up every single post-Pulp Fiction-ish film indiscriminately. But, like a bunch of overstimulated, hyperactive toddlers, this crowd would write a film off as boring if it didn’t have that level of cinematic masturbation as a Tarantino picture (hence the lopsided, legacy love for absolute worthless garbage like The Boondock Saints). And while Boogie Nights and, especially, Magnolia are awash in dazzling visual arabesques Hard Eight, doesn’t traffic in them. Despite the use of a quick pan here or there and one tremendous tracking shot of Sydney moving like a shark across the casino floor, the film’s dynamism comes solely and bravely in its silences and what it doesn’t say. The electricity it emits is a slow burning charge that feels confident.
But, finally, Tarantino fashioned the mood of Pulp Fiction after those deliciously chosen pop tunes with which he festoons his soundtracks. Anderson fashioned Hard Eight after a Tom Waits song; it’s a true broken boulevard of heartache and misery where, after an evening of carnage, one can merely adjust their coat sleeve to cover up the bloodstains and move about their day unmolested.
What’s everyone’s beef with Kong: Skull Island? Not tophat n’ coattails, high-tea cinema enough? I’m joking but I’ve waded through so much negativity surrounding this film over the years that I avoided it, and when I finally came round to watching it I found a perfectly thrilling, super entertaining monster flick that I have little to no issues with. The 70’s Viet Nam CCR aesthetic is an interesting choice for the Kong myth and I think it works, as John Goodman’s half insane journalist leads Samuel L. Jackson’s all the way insane military commander and his platoon on a voyage to fabled Skull Island, joined by Tom Hiddleston essentially playing a cross between Indiana Jones/James Bond and badass Brie Larson? How could that not be fun? Throw in and all the way insane and then some John C. Reilly as a downed WWII pilot surviving on the island and heavily channeling his Steve Brule character from Tim & Eric and I once again ask you, how could this not be fun? Then there’s Kong himself, who is an absolute unit here and way huger than I ever remember him being, measuring in at several hundred feet tall at least and fiercely protecting his kingdom from an armada of weird giant reptilian dragon things. There’s also giant water Buffalo, spooky natives and these bizarre stilt-walking arachnid nightmares that had me on edge and demonstrated some really impressive VFX. Jackson steals the show as far as human talent goes, playing a soldier who never saw enough combat in Nam to satisfy him before the war ended, is looking for a good old fashioned dust up and lives to regret being so eager before going completely, certifiably bonkers and trying to singlehandedly take down the big guy, on his own home turf no less. Throw in a solid supporting cast including Shea Wigham, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Erin Moriarty and a sly cameo from Richard Jenkins and you’ve got one all star lineup, with the MVP moment going to Reilly as he hilariously delivers the film’s best line and one allowed F-bomb in true Steve Brule fashion. Kong delivers the goods too, he’s an angry, very physically lethal sonofabitch big ass monkey who doesn’t take kindly to anyone threatening his homeland, be they big scaly monsters, the US military or other. It’s also very subtly antiwar, but just enough so that it does feel preachy and still knows how to have a blast. Pulpy in the dialogue realm, brilliant red n’ orange tinged in the cinematography department, retro steampunk vibe to some of the costuming and deadly fucking fun on the giant creature mayhem side of things. While Peter Jackson’s monumental 2005 version will likely always be my favourite version of King Kong, this Skull Island iteration is a flippin’ knockout of popcorn entertainment, audacious visuals and rock em sock em jungle war-games. Great stuff.
I don’t know what it is about Adam McKay’s The Other Guys but it’s one of those comedies I’ve seen literally over fifty times and it’s never not funny, in fact it gets even more fucking hilarious with each new viewing. It’s essentially a sendup of the buddy cop genre starring a perpetually cranky Mark Wahlberg and a half mad Will Ferrell, but it’s also so much more than that in ways you don’t initially see coming. I think it’s the lack of script and encouragement from everyone involved to rely on loopy improvisation that works so well for me here.. it’s like for every scene they tossed away all the scripted takes, kept all the ‘end of the shooting day giggles’ material and deranged bloopers and just loaded that shit up into the final cut, which is a stroke of mad scientist genius. Wahlberg and Ferrell are Allen and Terry, two hapless NYPD detectives constantly living under the shadow of a couple hotshot alpha badasses played briefly by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson until.. well let’s just say they get their moment to shine, as Ice-T dryly narrates the action when he feels the need to pipe in. They get involved in an impossibly intricate conspiracy involving diamond heists, a corrupt hedge fund guru (Steve Coogan almost walks off with the film), an Aussie private security prick (Ray Stevenson, priceless), the power-ball lottery and so much convolution that it’s taken me this many viewings to get that yes, it indeed does have a plot that makes sense when you work it all out but that’s besides the point anyways. It’s almost like Naked Gun level shenanigans where it doesn’t quite take place in the real world but an almost surreal comedic version of it. Just beholding Allen and Terry play ‘Bad Cop Bad Cop,’ get their car hijacked by a coven of perverted homeless dudes called ‘Dirty Mike & The Boys,’ recount Allen’s life as a college pimp, the precinct goons convincing Allen to do a ‘Desk Pop’ and so much more is enough to realize that you’re not in Buddy Comedy Kansas anymore and you’re gonna see some shit that defies genre expectations. I love when Steve Coogan is like “I’ll give you each a million dollars to let me go, and it’s not a bribe.” Ferrell retorts: “Of course it’s a bribe, you’re offering us money to not do our jobs”. Coogan looks him dead in the eye and sincerely reiterates: “It’s not a bribe.” Fucking gets me every time man. The cast is peppered with so many effective oddball performances I couldn’t mention them all here but be on the lookout for Eva Mandes, Rob Riggle, Josef Sommer, Brett Gelman, Derek Jeter, Damon Wayans, Bobby Cannavale, Anne Heche, Andy Buckley, Natalie Zea, Brooke Shields, Rosie Perez and more. Best of all has to be Michael Keaton as their police captain, a loopy fellow who also works at Bed, Bath & Beyond for some reason and quotes TLC songs multiple times throughout the film but pretends he has no idea who they are, it’s a brilliant bit of knowingly subtle supporting work that also gets me every time, as does the film overall. This one just exists outside the box and does it’s own thing, getting abstract, bizarre and frequently ‘WTF’ to the point it feels like something by SNL at their absolute weirdest or… I don’t even know what to compare McKay’s aesthetic to, but I’ll say that this is likely in the top ten funniest comedies I’ve ever seen. Aim for the bushes!
Following the cinema changing smash of PULP FICTION, marking the first and last time (so far) in his career, Quentin Tarantino adapted a property by someone else By adapting Elmore Leonard, Tarantino made the story and his characters his own, by using a set story and characters, he populates each character with his hallmark casting and colors in Leonard’s dialogue with his own Tarantinoisms. JACKIE BROWN has long been hailed Tarantino’s most “mature” work, and in a sense, that is a more than a fair assessment.
Tarantino’s cast is rather remarkable in this picture. He changes the name and skin color of Leonard’s heroine by casting Pam Grier in her finest role that acts as both a callback continuation of some of her most seminal 70s characters and an empowering role of fierce feminism. Robert Forster, another mainstay of forgotten roles in cinema gets cast in one of Tarantino’s best characters, Max Cherry, the stoic bail bondsman who assists in Grier’s caper.
Michael Keaton and Robert De Niro are magnificent in meaty roles that act as respective undercards in their rich canon of characters; it truly is a shame that Tarantino never worked with Keaton and De Niro again, because he gets unique performances out of them, that is tremendously underrated. And of course, Samuel L. Jackson gets a very Sam Jackson role, and he is such a magnificent son of a bitch to watch in the film. Bridget Fonda has never been better or sexier.
Tarantino crafts a film populated with older actors, giving us a pulpy crime caper, where the action is moved forward by dialogueless characters, Forster and De Niro’s total dialogue probably would take up three pages in the screenplay, through their reactions, stares, and movements very much move the film along. The cunning screenplay foregoes Tarantino’s violent nature, through the guise of character progression.
Tarantino’s love for the dangerous and sexy heroine is on full display in this film. Pam Grier’s take on the role that she’ll more than likely be remembered for is phenomenal, and she shifts back and forth between manipulating the bad men in the film and falling for her sidekick, Forster.
The reason this film is deemed Tarantino’s most mature is that the film laminates stoicism through Grier and Forster. The film is about living with mistakes, living long enough to know your limitations, and how to survive. All these characters have lived a life of struggle and hardship well before the cameras start rolling. The film builds up and cascades into an emotional moment between two genre actors that get dropped into a mainstream, highly polished film and that is such a beautiful thing.
The subject of mental illness is one that’s close and important to me as I myself am one of the afflicted, and it’s impossible to ignore that the treatment of it by Hollywood, particularly in formative years, hasn’t been so apt. Don’t get me wrong, I love stuff like Me, Myself & Irene or Split as entertainment but in terms of accurately representing the conditions that beset human beings, they haven’t been so hot. There are those films and filmmakers out there that strive to educate and enlighten or even just to craft an effective thriller or comedy and still stay true to real life, doing important work for the collective awareness and making terrific art/entertainment in one shot. Here are my personal top ten favourites!
10. Geoffrey Sax’s Frankie & Alice
Multiple personality disorders are popular in Hollywood but there’s a tendency to mock, sensationalize or tell a ‘real life’ story that’s later proved as fraud. This one showcases Halle Berry in a galvanizing dual performance as a go-go dancer afflicted by two very different internal identities and finding her life in splinters as a result. When a kind, compassionate psychiatrist (Stellan Skarsgard) makes it his mission to help her get back on track it becomes apparent just how challenging and horrific it must be to endure such a thing.
9. Dito Montiel’s Man Down
I heard this one sold one single theatrical ticket in the UK and didn’t fare much better here, getting squeaked into a quiet streaming release. It’s too bad because it is one haunting drama about PTSD featuring an implosive, incredibly intense performance from Shia LaBeouf as an ex marine who can’t psychologically reconcile his experience and is lost amongst his own trauma. Terrific work from Kate Mara as his wife and Gary Oldman as an army counsellor too.
8. James Mangold’s Girl Interrupted
Likely the most accessible and mainstream story on this list, Mangold’s look at a mental care facility for girls in the 60’s gets a superficial rep in some circles but I find it to be every bit the rewarding drama, ensemble piece and explorative journey that those who champion it say. Winona Ryder plays a wayward girl whose self destructive behaviour lands her there but it’s Angelina Jolie as a fellow patient diagnosed with borderline personality disorder that both anchors the film and provides it with a wildly unpredictable streak.
7. Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island
This is of course a big old elaborate mystery film with a gigantic cast, many red herrings, tons of subplots and all kinds of stylistic fanfare. But if you look past all that there’s a harrowing and very realistic portrait of minds irreparably damaged, between Leo Dicaprio’s PTSD afflicted ex soldier and Michelle Williams in a haunting turn as his deeply sick wife. The film overall is a tantalizing guessing game and broadly covers the thriller board but the final act brings it right down to earth for a grounded, grim finale showcasing the brutal honesty of these illnesses and the heart wrenching tragedy they beget.
6. Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King
Robin Williams gives one of his best performances as Parry, a once successful professor of medieval history who lost his mind following the death of his wife and now wanders the streets of NYC, homeless. Jeff Bridges is the radio DJ who befriends and tries to understand him and their relationship carries the film. So to does Gilliam’s knack for surreal visual storytelling, letting these fantastical creations run wild and giving us a glimpse into Parry’s damaged but fascinating mind.
5. Brad Anderson’s The Machinist
Christian Bale’s Trevor Reznik hasn’t slept in a year. Guilt, extreme weight loss and delusions are just the start of his problems. This is billed as and feels like a thriller but I think that’s deliberate on director Anderson’s part to put us in the hot seat next to Trevor, to make us feel the same paranoia and delusions of persecution he does. The atmosphere here is almost suffocating, the score a muted tangle of busted nerves and Bale’s performance something just this side of unearthly. When it all comes together and we see why he is the way he is it’s deeply sad but makes a kind of terrible sense and gives the film a final stab of emotional weight.
4. Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace
PTSD is only vaguely hinted at in this beautiful father daughter drama but it’s there in every frame, in every mannerism of Ben Fosters masterful performance. Him and newcomer Thomasin Mackenzie achingly display a family dynamic that has been set off balance by his illness, and the wedge it has driven both between them and between him and ever living a normal life again. This is a restrained yet heartbreaking film that gently unpacks its themes with kindness and compassion, letting a devastating final scene bring the whole point home heavily but somehow lightly in the same note.
3. David Cronenberg’s Spider
Ralph Fiennes give a focused, intense turn as the titular individual, a man released from a mental care facility and relegated to a London halfway house where all the scrambled and tumultuous memories of his past come tumbling down through the scattered web of his broken mind and into the present. Recollections of his parents (Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson) are somehow shrouded from himself, by himself and as he tirelessly works to regain his sanity, he slips further away from it. Cronenberg uses shadows, dimly lit alleys and creaky, barren rooms to show how this character has been cast away from his own perception and wanders about like a lost soul.
2. Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy
The life and times of Beach Boys pioneer Brian Wilson are explored here, namely at two important junctures in his life. Paul Dano plays him younger, at the height of fame and success but poised on the cusp of a psychotic breakdown after stress and an unhealthy relationship with his abusive father (Bill Camp) reach a fever pitch. Decades later John Cusack embodies a much older Wilson, stuck under the tyrannical yoke of an evil, manipulative psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti) until he meets the love of his life (Elizabeth Banks) and a chance at a fresh start along with her. The scene of Dano putting recording headphones over his ears and closing his eyes in horror as he hears voices is one of the most brutally honest and realistic depictions of auditory hallucinations you can find in film. Wilson had a rough life and the film makes that very clear but it’s never ever sensationalist or exploitive and overall has a message about love, light and working endlessly to overcome any demons or struggles thrown into your path.
1. Kasi Lemmons’ The Caveman’s Valentine
Samuel L. Jackson gives a career best as schizophrenic former musician Romulus, a man afflicted by terrible hallucinations and delusions to the point that when he discovers a genuine murder conspiracy no one, including his police officer daughter (Aunjanue Ellis) believes him. This film is driven by a fascinating mystery narrative that takes Romulus from his cave in Central Park into the pretentious New York art world and beyond to find a killer. At heart though director Lemmons let’s it m be a serious minded exploration of what it must be like to live like that, to be constantly sabotaged by your own mind. Jackson’s brilliant performance and Lemmons effective use of surreal, mesmerizing imagery give us a compassionate, dynamic window into this man’s mind and in turn a unique, thought provoking piece of cinema.
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Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown runs right around two and a half hours, and if you were to go through the film and separate all the scenes that are directly about the central plot specifics from the ones that are simply characters hanging out, shooting the shit and socializing, you’d probably cut the film in half. There’s a lesson I was taught in film school and it goes something like “every scene in the script must serve/move the plot and anything that doesn’t must go.” Well, I get the creative sentiment there but it’s often much more complicated than that, and often very subjective what one person will distill personally from a scene and use for their appreciation of the story overall versus another person being bored by it. In the case of Jackie Brown, I absolutely loved each and every laidback scene of breezy character development. These people start talking about movies, weed, cars, guns, the city or anything offhand and slowly, gradually they shift into what the story is about, which is the genius of Tarantino’s screenplay, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch.
As the titular Jackie Brown, Pam Grier gives the performance of her career as a desperate middle aged career woman trying to score a little extra loot for herself, and getting trapped between a rock and a hard place in the process. She smuggles cash in from Mexico for low rent arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a fast talking psychopath who enlists his newly released ex con pal Louis (Robert De Niro) into helping him out with the latest gig. Also involved is Ordell’s beach bunny stoner girlfriend Melanie (Bridget Fonda), a low level thug on his payroll (Chris Tucker) and stoic, sad eyed bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster). All these players shuffle around the LA chessboard, often lazily and in no rush and it’s these scenes that give the film its lifeblood. Jackie and Max find compassion, solace and bittersweet romance together, Tarantino let’s them circle each other in no great hurry and later in the film when they do share a kiss it’s just the most beautiful, well built up moment. Grier comes from a blaxploitation background and it’s apparent in her performance, but we also get the sense that this operates on a real plane, much more so than many other Tarantino films. Forster is always noble, observant and calm in most of his career, there’s a few obscure manic performances from him out there but for the most part he underplays his work. Max has to be his best creation, a steely journeyman dude who’s seen enough and wants something new in his life, something he finds in Jackie as he falls in love with her literally at first sight.
This is a character piece, and in addition to Grier and Forster we get incredibly vivid, funny and idiosyncratic work from all involved. Jackson is hysterical as the most verbose cat of the bunch, he’s also scarier than Jules in Pulp Fiction too. DeNiro plays Louis as a dim-headed fuck-up who seems to be playing dumb to stealth people, then seems to actually be thick again until we’re just not sure right up until the hilarious last few beats of his arc that result in some of the funniest black comedy I’ve ever seen. Fonda let’s a stoned veneer hide a deep resentment and hatred for pretty much everyone around her until she takes it one step too far and pays for it hilariously. Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen show up doing a flawless good cop bad cop routine as a local Detective and an ATF agent on both Jackie’s and Ordell’s trail. Watch for Lisa Gay Hamilton, Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister and genre veteran Sid Haig as well.
I get conflicted when ranking this amongst other Tarantino films because he’s adapting someone else’s work and therefore it’s not purely his creation, which is always when his most energetic and inspired stuff happens. Jackie Brown is a masterpiece and one of my favourite films, no doubt. But it’s Tarantino doing something else, chilling out in the pool and letting this cast of characters hang out too, in bars, beach apartments, cars, cluttered offices, malls and airports. There’s no great momentum or surge behind this story, it’s all very laconic and easy breezy, which is the strongest quality. But it just as much feels like a Leonard story as it does Tarantino, which works too. His crazy, wild style and pop culture obsessions are given a modest track to race around because of Leonard’s low key, slow burn dialogue aesthetic and the resulting flavour is so good it’s almost perfect. But it’s not just Quentin at the helm. Whatever your thoughts on that and comparisons with this film next to the ones he’s both written and directed, there’s no arguing that this is a beautiful, hilarious, touching, suspenseful, romantic classic of the crime genre.
Many adaptations of John Grisham’s work have shown up in Hollywood, some great and others not so much, but for my money it doesn’t get any better than Joel Schumacher’s A Time To Kill. There’s something fired up about this story, a heartfelt and desperate aura to the high stakes moral maelstrom that Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew McConaughey find themselves in here. Jackson is Carl Lee Hailey, husband and father in America’s Deep South who opens up an AK-47 on the two redneck crackers who raped his eight year old daughter and left her for dead on the side of the road. McConaughey is Jake Brigance, the slick attorney hired to defend him who first seeks the limelight, then wishes he didn’t and finally becomes so morally invested in Carl’s case that it begins to unravel both his own life, not to mention stir up racial tensions all over the county.
Was Carl justified in these murders, given the situation? Should he be set free? Will the trial be a fair, civilized event given the fact that he’s a black man from the south in a time where they were not treated justly or as equals? The answer to that third question is definitely not because soon the Klan gets involved, the entire judiciary system itself gets put on trial and the whole state erupts in hot blooded anger over the situation. Jackson is fierce and vulnerable in the role, Never defaulting to the trademark detached, noisy brimstone that has become his thing but letting the hurt and righteous fury emanate from within organically, it’s probably his best work. McConaughey gets the sweaty desperation right and you begin to feel the uncomfortable nature of the situation creeping up on him until before he knows it there’s a burning cross on his lawn and his wife (Ashley Judd) is ready to leave him. Sandra Bullock does fine work as his legal assistants who, being an idealist, works for free because she believes in the cause rather than money or notoriety, the latter of which she receives whether she likes it or not. Kevin Spacey lays on the sleazy attitude as the loudmouth prosecuting lawyer who, naturally, hits below the belt in his tactics. An unbelievable roster of supporting talent shows up including Chris Cooper, Kiefer Sutherland, Brenda Fricker, Oliver Platt, Kurtwood Smith, M. Emmett Walsh, Anthony Heald, Charles Dutton, Raéven Kelly, Patrick McGoohan, Nicky Katt, Doug Hutchison, Beth Grant, Octavia Spencer and Donald Sutherland as a charismatic old alcoholic lawyer who serves as Jake’s mentor and voice of reason.
This film can sort of be used as a barometer to measure moral dilemmas and see through the weak spots of the justice system, of which there are many. Were Carl’s murders justified? I think so, given the heinous nature of the crimes against his daughter. But the ensuing racial turmoil, petty battle of legal wills and outside-the-courtroom power struggle sort of clouds that until the film reaches a barbaric fever pitch of violence and terror, until Jake calmly and directly cuts through all of that and turns the mirror on a whole community with his heartbreaking final address to the jury, after which it’s so dead silent you could hear a pin drop. It’s a bold, fantastic piece of acting from McConaughey and some of his best work also, in a brilliant film.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan has had a few iterations over the decades, the last two of which were sadly lukewarm efforts, but for my money Harrison Ford and Philip Noyce gave the best version with the explosive double feature of Patriot Games and Clear & Present Danger. Star studded across the board, gifted with long runtimes, huge budgets and intelligent scripts, these are two enduring espionage films that I always have a place for on my DVD shelf and always tune in to if I come across them on TV. Ford is a heroic presence in cinema, and although his actions as Ryan are violently intrepid, he gives the character an unsure edge and resounding vulnerability that is always compelling and offsets the intrigue as great character work. This guy is an analyst after all, not a field agent and the portrayal should reflect that.
Patriot Games kicks off with Ryan in a brutal personal war against a rogue faction of the IRA, a tense conflict that reaps collateral damage on both sides. The two constant characters who ground both Ford and Ryan are his boss and mentor Greer (James Earl Jones) and his wife Cathy (Anne Archer), they keep him humble, human and sympathetic amongst all the chaos and political intrigue. Sean Bean is scary good here as Miller, renegade Irish operative whose plans are foiled early on by Jack, prompting him to swear bloody revenge on his whole family in a courtroom scene that is as chilling as Bean has ever been. Paranoia sets in as countless attempts are made against his and his families life, and even reassuring words from an IRA honcho (Richard Harris) who denounces Miller can’t set Ryan at ease. Only the eventual confrontation puts an end to it, which we get in a spectacular nocturnal speedboat chase across a Maryland harbour. The talent includes Thora Birch as Jack’s daughter, J.E. Freeman, Patrick Bergin, James Fox, Polly Walker, Bob Gunton and a young Samuel L. Jackson.
Clear & Present Danger sees the headstrong US President (Donald Moffat, never one to not devour dialogue like a good steak) declares war on marauding cartels from South America, another conflict that Ryan gets thrown into headlong both on location and back on the home front. Their leader (Miguel Sandoval) is a hotheaded moron, but the real danger lurks in Felix Cortez (Joaquim De Almeida, a spectacularly nasty villain), advisor, assassin and deadly power behind the throne who has ideas of his own. This entry is slightly more epic and action centric but the homeland espionage is played up too, particularly in the corrupt actions of two impossibly sleazy suits back in Washington played by Henry Czerny and Harris Yulin. They are so good in their roles they almost steal the film, especially Czerny as the ultimate prick and absolute last person you’d want making decisions for their country. Ford is less seething than he was in the very personal conflict of Patriot Games, but no less resourceful and violent when he needs to be. Willem Dafoe fills the boots of John Clark, a Clancy staple character and ruthless tactical agent who sometimes functions as a one man army. Further work is provided by Benjamin Bratt, Raymond Cruz, Dean Jones, Ann Magnuson, Patrick Bauchau and Hope Lange.
These two are not only great action spy films but to me represent an oasis of 90’s filmmaking that has never been replicated. Enormous casts, every dollar of the budget onscreen, timeless original scores (courtesy of James Horner here), vivid action set pieces, equal parts focus on story and action, no CGI in sight, character development and all round consistency in craft and production. I grew up with these two classics, watched them countless times with my dad and will always tune right back in whenever they’re around.